Aaron McGruder, 'Boondocks' Creator, on Writing 'Red Tails' and Working With George Lucas After Making Fun of Him
George Lucas' "Red Tails," his action adventure about the Tuskegee Airmen, opens this weekend after twenty years in development. Featuring a cast and crew of black talent, one of the names on the project that has drawn the most eyebrows is co-writer Aaron McGruder, creator of the popular cartoon "The Boondocks."
Throughout the print and television installments of "The Boondocks," McGruder courted acclaim and controversy equally. His biting satires and blunt opinions on everything from Ronald Reagan to corporate media to Tyler Perry, propelled him to forefront of liberal politics and African-American culture. One of his favorite targets was none other than George Lucas and the "Star Wars" franchise, a property he repeatedly took to task for becoming soullessly corporate and racially insensitive. In spite of his critiques, McGruder grew up as a die-hard fan of the film series, so he jumped at the chance to work on a project as important as "Red Tails." His complicated relationship with Lucas made their creative team-up a unique pairing, especially because Lucas personally courted him.
Moviefone spoke with McGruder about the entire process of working with George Lucas, why the Tuskegee Airmen should be comic book heroes, and what he's learned from his years as a pop culture lightning rod.
I had no idea you were involved in "Red Tails" until your name came up in the credits and it took me by surprise, honestly.
A lot of people didn't know. I came on to the project kind of late so it really wasn't public knowledge until the trailer and posters started coming out.
It's interesting that it was actually George Lucas who personally reached out to you.
Yeah, this was after principal photography; [director] Anthony [Hemingway] was already done with all his duties, and I was brought in during 2010 to initially to do some minor tweaking and punch-ups, but I started working with George and I had some ideas, he liked those ideas, so we ended up doing more. It was very cool.
How crazy was that experience of working one-on-one with George Lucas?
It was a big deal. I followed this project, pretty much for the twenty years that it existed. I first heard of the Tuskegee Airmen when I was ten years old, and I was probably a teenager, when I first read that George was doing it. You never think you're going to work on it, you just think, "Oh, this will be cool." You look forward to seeing it, and be happy that somebody is going to tell the story on that scale. Then they called and a week later I was there at the ranch. What I did a lot of was listen to George in terms of what he wanted out of the movie, and I think the more he talked about it, it was not exactly the movie he had. The movie he had was a very serious historical drama, and I had always envisioned it more like "Star Wars" -- particularly the old "Star Wars," the first one. I think that's what George wanted to. It was a question of "How do you get there while still respecting the weight of the subject matter?"
You're a huge "Star Wars" fan, but you're also someone who parodied "Star Wars," calling Lucas out for the racial stereotyping of Jar Jar Binks. In the NY Times profile on George, they asked if Jar Jar ever came up and you said "no." But did you get any indication of his sense of humor regarding "Star Wars" parodies and criticisms?
No, I really didn't. It's obviously the elephant in the room, and I get why you're asking, but I went there with: "He's the boss, he's giving me this huge opportunity, and he's the studio." He's the actual studio. They didn't need me on this project; I was asked to show up and I genuinely wanted to do the best job I could for the movie. I really appreciated the opportunity. I was really happy that George and I clicked creatively, and I had that experience. He allowed more changes to be made than originally intended. I went there with the idea: "I am not going to deviate from the plan at all, not go into fanboy mode, I'm not going to go there." [Laughs]
The movie is bigger than George because it is about the Tuskegee Airmen who were heroes to me most of my life. This is going to be their movie, and I wanted to do the best job I could. Being a "Star Wars" fan -- I mean come on. I got plenty of "Star Wars" fans to talk to about "Star Wars."
Once I saw your name in the credits, I had a different ear to the movie, trying to hear your trademark voice.
[Laughs] I know that, yes I know; you can't find it. With most movies this scale, all of us only knew the part we did, until we saw the finished product. The opening scene is one that George and I came up with. I wanted to open with that segment.
It's definitely a hero's intro.
Exactly. I wanted it to be like, "Holy shit, these are the stakes of the war. Kids are dying." When we cut to the next scene and it's our guys flying the border of Italy, that's how we see there are real stakes here. This is the tragedy of racism and segregation. They could be saving lives and they're back flying around shooting at trucks. It was those kinds of things -- turning it into a pure action adventure movie as opposed to a historical drama. I think it worked!
In the Times profile, you're quoted as saying the black audience hasn't had "the John Wayne treatment." And this movie very much feels like a John Wayne throwback. The challenge to me is how you can get a modern audience -- especially a young audience -- to buy that sincerity without rolling their eyes and laughing at it. Is America too cynical to accept clear heroism like that at the movies?
It is a very serious tonal choice that George had made. I was the cheerleader to that. "Yes, go in that direction, do that." Nobody's more cynical than me. About everything.
But my first memory in life was three years old: my dad took me to see "Star Wars" and it's not just the first movie I remember, it's my first memory. If you ever watch "Boondocks," a lot of times it does become more of an action comedy than just a pure comedy. I've always had a passion for that, and it was a big deal to get the call. In terms of the tone, coming from the comic book world, that's what I wanted to see. That part of me weighed over the cynical satirist. When it came to these guys, you had the opportunity to tell a clean story with over-the-top heroes and a simple "Star Wars" good vs. bad thing. The more comic book-y the better.
The big challenge with George knowing so much about the history and having a very personal relationship with these pilots for so long, was I think he just got overwhelmed trying to do right by these guys. I came in with fresh eyes and ears, as someone who still loves the first movies and I wanted to do anything I could to get George back into that place of capturing that charm. I feel there's a charm to "Red Tails" that I haven't experienced in a long time at the movies. I'm hoping that kids go to this movie without that grown-up cynicism. If you're my age, just enjoy the ride and have the experience that we had when we first saw "Star Wars" and "Empire Strikes Back" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark." That would be 100% the goal. I feel like the history is easy to put out there, there's already a familiarity with it, or at least the broad strokes of racism and segregation. Some people are going to like this tonal choice and some people are going to say, "Oh it should've been heavier and it should've been more dramatic." But there's a version of this that doesn't have to be "Saving Private Ryan." We can be "Star Wars," as crazy as it is.
Talking about the broader idea of geek culture: I feel like it's predominantly driven by white older males. It's marketed to them first, and then it trickles down to every other demographic. The white older male is the stereotype of geek culture. Do you see that evolving?
I don't think the word is "stereotype." I think you're more referring to a center of gravity. Just look at the epicenter of what that world is, between George Lucas and Marvel and DC comics, that whole world is predominantly white men. But the truth is, now, particularly because of the last decade where it became very profitable in Hollywood, geek culture is so all-encompassing. It has become this pervasive thing through American pop culture as a whole. Everyone has their different versions on it.
You go to Comic-Con and see a cross section of everybody. It used to be niche, and now it's so enormous that it's hard to categorize. But ultimately, the epicenter of who's creating this stuff still ends up being the comic book companies, the Hollywood movies or whatever. All of that is very much white male-centered. That's what it is. I don't look at it as a bad thing. Most of Hollywood is like that. I don't trip on it.
What makes "Red Tails" so remarkable is that it's an all-black movie. That's unique in this world. "Boondocks" is the same thing. It's our attempt at anime, but it's very, very black. [Laughs] I think it's a world that cultivates people's imagination, allows people to be themselves even if it falls outside of what can be sometimes a very narrow definition of what is hip and cool. It's a world that accepts people more for who they are. Whoever you are, at this point, you can find your thing.
In an interview you did with HardKnocksTV in the summer of '08, you were asked about the upcoming election and why you pulled away from critiquing the Bush administration. You said, "We're no longer at a point where people don't know what the problem is." In the last year, looking at the Wisconsin labor protests, Occupy Wall Street, the changing cultural discussion about class warfare with corporate control, how would Huey Freeman respond to these changes?
Well the only way for you to know would be through "The Boondocks." I decided a long time ago to stop engaging in the conversation. If I had anything worthwhile to say, I should say it in the work. I stopped running around and arguing on Bill Maher. I lost an appetite for it. I feel like my personal passions are elsewhere. What happens to this crazy world is going to happen.
But I think there's as much impact doing movies like "Red Tails" that are not controversial in any real sense, but can still have a real effect on the audience and affect people's perceptions of themselves. I try to imagine what it would be like if I was six going to see this movie, and I tried to keep that in mind as I was working on it. That's the really cool thing that "Boondocks" can't inspire. "The Boondocks" can be a rough education of satire, politics and social issues; it's hardcore and brutal. This is a sweet, charming movie. That also has it's place in society.
What would you like to see change in movies and television that are geared towards kids?
The process of getting anything made is very, very difficult. It never stops being the biggest obstacle. How do you get it made and how do you see your visions through to the end? And nobody can counter that. I don't know if I can stand back and say, "Oh I wish they made more black films" or, "I wish they would let me make more movies." As an artist, you have to believe in something enough to overcome these enormous obstacles and hope at the end of the day it's what you wanted it to be. But I don't know if there's a prescription I can write for Hollywood. Obviously integration and the massive amounts of corporate input makes studios very risk adverse. There's not a lot of people who want to take chances but it's a universal struggle. It's very, very tough now. But if it were easy, I guess everybody would do it.
Will "Boondocks" ever return to TV in some kind of format?
I'm just going to have to pass on that question. [Laughs]
Have you ever thought about mounting -- directing and designing -- an animated feature? Making an American anime for American audiences?
All I can say, um [Laughs] All I can say is, I can't say anything.
Did I stumble on something?
What did you say: "interview's over"? Interview's over!